The world of baseball cards has changed a lot since Jay Finglass got his first cards in 1954.
What used to be child's play has become big business. In the process, Finglass went from a passionate collector and expert card flipper to one of the first dealers in the country.
Now he sees a shakeout. The specialty-card store, once the collector's mecca, could be on the way out, reversing the trend of the past 20 years.
"Since there are so many places to buy cards and supplies, the specialized store is becoming obsolete," he says. "The survivors will be the ones who sell other things."
Within the next month, Finglass is adding comic books. He sells non-sport cards based on comics and says other dealers have found comics profitable. He calls it an "economic necessity."
Finglass, who owns Jay's Sports Connection in Towson, got into cards in a big way in 1954. He was 6 and recuperating from a tonsillectomy. His father thought a box of baseball cards might help.
But by 1961, cards seemed foolish and his were gone.
But a cousin had never thrown his out, and seeing those cards in 1970 changed Finglass' life.
"When I saw what he had, all the nostalgia hit me," Finglass says. "I was so jealous."
In 1975 he saw his first baseball-card newsletter. It, and the handful of dealers, advertised in The Sporting News. Jim Beckett was printing the results of a price survey he had begun, but his first price guide was four years away.
"I called my mom," Finglass says. "She'd saved my brother's cards. I confiscated them."
His cousin never parted with his cards, but Finglass began buying collections and single cards at flea markets and wherever he heard someone was selling. He was working as a stockbroker but went to his first card show just to sell cards he didn't want.
"I had no intentions of becoming a dealer," he says. "I just wanted to collect."
Between 1976 and 1978, he bought the core of his collection, which includes tobacco cards and complete Topps sets from 1955 to 1960.
In 1979, he left the family contracting business, which he had joined in 1976, and started a mail-order card business. He called it Jay's Nostalgia World, modeling it on Den's Collectors Den, started by Denny Eckes in Laurel.
He ran the business out of his apartment, and it was obvious that a market was there. He moved into a second-floor office in Towson and was open Fridays and Saturdays. He estimates there were fewer than 25 dealers nationwide at the time.
His timing was perfect. Two months earlier, three 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle cards sold for an average of $3,000 at a Willow Grove card show. The price tag caught the attention of the
non-collecting public. The card had been going for about $75 between 1974 and 1977.
"It seemed like the speculators from gold and silver seemed to spill over into cards," he says, noting that, when prices jumped between 1978 and 1980, a Brooks Robinson rookie card went from $3 to $120.
Fleer and Donruss entered the market in 1981, and public interest grew. At the same time, prices were dropping, to bottom out in 1983, when the benchmark Mantle card hit $500.
Finglass ran shows between 1980 and 1987, attracting dealers from 15 states. He ended his mail-order business in 1985 and the next year moved to a new store and renamed it Jay's Sports Connection. He moved to a larger store on York Road last year.
Prices, as well as customer base, were rising. "1987-88 ushered in the largest rise of the older cards," he says. The Mantle card doubled in price, and speculators replaced veteran collectors.
"Our core group of old-time collectors began to drop out of the market," says Finglass. "The older cards became too expensive . . . and the new card companies had created too many products and . . . it was too much money to collect everything."
He sees the current market as a "bust within the growth. . . . We're going through a very severe correctional period. . . . We need a greater contraction of products, dealers and shows."
Saturday, card show, Arbutus Fire Hall (5200 Southwestern ** Blvd.), 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., (410) 246-6286 or (410) 788-8378.
Sunday, card show, Security Holiday Inn (I-695, Exit 17), 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., (410) 922-8366.
CARD THE WEEK
Baltimore-based Hieronimus & Co. has produced the first baseball cards of Negro Leagues great and Baltimorean Leon Day. There's space on the front for an autograph. Autographed cards are $5 each directly from Day, 3036 Harlem Ave., Baltimore, Md., 21216. He also will autograph flat pieces for $3 each. Don't forget a stamped, self-addressed envelope.